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West Papua ‘observer’ status issue faces critical Melanesian summit

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Flags of the Melanesian Spearhead group countries … Papua New Guinea (clockwise from top left), Kanaky (host territory), Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands. Is West Papua’s Morning Star flag about to join them? Image: MSG Kantri

Decisions at next month’s Melanesian Spearhead Group 25th jubilee and leaders’ summit in Noumea will shape the future of the Pacific region. Topics are expected to include West Papua, the environment and the future of MSG relations with the Pacific Islands Forum. Jamie Small reports for Asia-Pacific Journalism.

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Jamie Small

West Papua may become a crucial issue for the Pacific if the Melanesian Spearhead Group next month decides to offer observer status to the Indonesian-ruled region at its leaders’ summit next month.

The MSG leaders will be gathering in Noumea, New Caledonia, for the organisation’s 25th jubilee and many serious matters will be on the table.

Peter Forau, Director-General of the MSG, says the major focus of the summit will be on West Papua’s proposed addition to the group as an observer state.

APJlogo72_iconTwo provinces controversially ruled by Indonesia – Papua and West Papua – are striving for self-determination and Papuan activists see the MSG as a crucial step towards eventual independence.

Speaking to Pacific Scoop, Forau seemed to believe that the vote would pass.

“Leaders have publicly expressed support for West Papua,” he says. “[But] we expect discussion to happen.”

Peter Forau

MSG’s Peter Forau … not worried about offending Indonesia. Image: MSG

Dr Steven Ratuva, a Fiji regional strategic studies researcher of the Centre for Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland, has little doubt.

Accepted ‘informally’
“West Papua has been accepted informally,” he says. “It will be formalised in New Caledonia.”

Dr Ratuva says this is the first time West Papua will be given formal recognition, and through the MSG, it will push for more autonomy.

The MSG has experience helping countries push for independence. Also with help from the group, French Polynesia was placed on the UN decolonisation list on May 17.

Forau says the MSG also supported Timor-Leste and is happy to continue helping countries striving for independence.

“We want to be seen as available to the rest of the Pacific when they need an international forum,” he says.

Ben Bohane, communications director of the Vanuatu-based Pacific Institute of Public Policy, agrees that the vote is likely to pass, but is unsure if it will be unanimous.

He says that all the leaders of member states are behind the decision, but Papua New Guinea is wavering.

Blocked by PNG
Papua New Guinea, which is the only MSG country sharing a border with Indonesia, which currently is an observer, blocked the proposal last time it was considered by the MSG.

If West Papua is voted in to the MSG as an observer state at the leaders’ forum on June 20, it does not automatically mean that Indonesia would lose its observer status.

In fact, MSG member states may allow Indonesia to remain as an observer to encourage serious negotiations on the future of West Papua.

Bohane says Melanesia would become “united”, and that would test relations with Indonesia.

He says there may be a drive from the MSG to form a Federated States of Melanesia, but that is in the distant future.

Dr Ratuva says letting West Papua into the MSG is a good move towards Melanesian solidarity, but the group needs to consider how Indonesia might react.

He says there is little Indonesia can do to persuade the MSG. However, it may exercise its power in other places.

ASEAN interest
Dr Ratuva says Fiji and Papua New Guinea have expressed interest in joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Indonesia is a powerful member.

Indonesia could make moves to block ASEAN from co-operating with MSG member states.

“But ASEAN is not just Indonesia,” says Dr Ratuva. There are nine other Southeast Asian member states, and the group has close economic and diplomatic relations with New Zealand and Australia.

Forau is not worried about offending Indonesia.

“We’ll make no-one worse off by the decisions of the leaders,” he says.

Many other issues and proposals will be discussed at the Noumea summit.

An important focus of the meeting will be trade.

Trade scenario
Forau says the MSG has the only operational trade agreement in the region, and the group would like to continue to build on that.

The decolonisation of Kanaky is another major topic of discussion.

Kanaky is the indigenous name for New Caledonia. The Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), an alliance of pro-independence political parties in Kanaky, is a member “state” of the MSG.

“We will be making every commitment to Kanaky’s independence,” says Forau.

Other topics to be discussed include:

•    Climate change and environmental issues.
•    Fisheries and ethical fishing.
•    Police co-operation.
•    The vision for the MSG over the next 25 years.

Ben Bohane says he also expects the forum to discuss labour protocols, as well as a Melanesian Arts Festival.

“The MSG is based on culture, rather than nations,” he says.

Growing MSG influence
Over the last 25 years, the MSG has grown in size, power and influence.

Dr Ratuva says the group represents 80 percent of the wealth of the Pacific, and the member states are a focus for investors.

“Lots of business people in the Pacific are installing themselves in PNG,” he says. “That will define the future geo-political and economic gravity in the Pacific over the next few years.”

Melanesia also has a much larger population than other areas of the Pacific.

However, Dr Ratuva says the member states should not forget about internal issues, such as poverty and political unrest.

“Fair trade is good. High regional and international profile is OK. But at the same time, they need to get back to basics.”

He says the group has redefined itself in terms of geopolitics as an autonomous group.

PIF power wanes
Meanwhile, the power of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) is dwindling under the domination of New Zealand and Australia.

“On one hand New Zealand and Australia give power and funding to the [Pacific Islands] Forum,” says Dr Ratuva.

“On the other hand it fractures the forum.”

He says that when Fiji was suspended from the PIF in 2009, it took a significant political and economic force with it to the MSG.

Bohane says the group can now “pack a bit more punch” in the international climate.

“It has become the sort of pre-eminent group in the region,” he says, “and New Zealand and Australia have underestimated the influence of the MSG.”

“It will be interesting to see how New Zealand and Australia deal with the MSG once Frank [Bainamarama] is no longer the chair.

Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe “Frank” Bainamarama currently chairs the MSG.

Strained relations
New Zealand has had strained diplomatic relations with Fiji since the 2006 military coup d’état.

The role of chair of the MSG will be handed to FLNKS at the summit.

Bohane agrees the PIF is seen to be losing relevance, but doesn’t think the MSG challenges the forum.

“The MSG is not a threat to the PIF, as some commentators are saying.”

He says that all of the subregional organisations of the Pacific have the opportunity to harmonise and work together.

Other subregional groups include the Secretariat of the Pacific Community. The Polynesian Leaders Group, the Alliance of Small Island States, and the Micronesian Leaders Group.

Dr Ratuva agrees: “It won’t fracture regionalism, but will in fact reinforce it. The MSG should not untie themselves from the [Pacific Islands] Forum.”

He says Fiji distanced itself from the forum, and PNG is thinking of doing the same.

“I think it’s a mistake.”

Jamie Small is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.

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